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Building Cross-Cultural Bonds through Healthcare Technology

Duke forms a special relationship with the students at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda

During the summer of 2017, a group of eight Duke students departed to Uganda, where they underwent training at Makerere University in Kampala and spent their remaining time repairing medical equipment at hospitals there. It was the first year of the Engineering World Health (EWH)-DukeEngage Summer Institute (SI) Uganda program, which aimed to both contribute to Ugandan hospitals by repairing medical equipment and to enrich the education of Duke students by providing them with a unique experience of getting involved in the local Ugandan community.

"When I met the students at the pre-departure dinner, I could tell even they didn't know what exactly they had gotten themselves into," remarked Maddy Bishop-Van Horn, the SI Engineering Coordinator for EWH.

The students began their journey at Makerere University, where they met the participants from the institution who would work alongside them throughout the trip. Bishop-Van Horn, who has worked on similar projects in Rwanda, Cambodia, Nepal and Tanzania, noted that the students selected for the program had a wide range of technical skills. With a mix of two ECE, four BME and two neuroscience majors, "The team was able to learn together and build each other's skills up throughout the course of the trip," she noted. During the hands-on labs and lectures, the students developed their understanding of needs-based design in the developing world.

group shot of 2017 participantsTheir contributions to the hospitals were tremendous. Bishop- Van Horn recalled that in the orthopedic department at one of the hospitals the students visited, nearly 75 percent of the equipment being used was either broken or not working properly. This was a public hospital for those who needed help but could not afford to visit a private hospital.

The students were able to repair much of this equipment and even visited a dental school where they got 10 to 15 dental chairs fully functioning. Some of the repaired equipment had been out of service for years, including a grinder for orthotic braces and an autoclave. These are just some examples of over 100 pieces of equipment the students repaired at seven different hospitals in Kampala.

The experience was even more impactful for the students, who developed skills about needs-based design and were able to put them to use while designing equipment for physiotherapy. One example of a particularly creative solution was a physical therapy device for patients with cerebral palsy built using a simple bicycle wheel.

Duke students were solving real-world problems and saw how their solutions worked. They worked closely with staff in the hospitals and professors at Makerere University, learning more than they had ever imagined they would.Participants work with members of the university on their design.

Reflecting on his experience, Duke student Praruj Pant said, "Honestly, we learned more from the people in the community that we worked with than we actually taught them. It was truly a humbling experience." Although the program participants certainly made an impact on the community, DukeEngage aims to foster collaboration between participants and community members, which is clearly seen in how much the participants learned from local Ugandans.

Outside of work, according to Helen Tan, one of the Duke students in the program, the students "built many meaningful relationships and had conversations and cross-cultural understandings that [they] would not otherwise have gained."

Living in Kampala, the students were able to immerse themselves in the culture, even enjoying a performance by the Ndere Dance Troupe and going on a safari. Living in the community also fostered a deeper understanding of the engineering challenges. As Tan stated, "I believe you gain a deeper understanding of how you can help as an engineer when you really go to places and see what they actually need." Given the positive impacts of the program on both the local community and the participants, the EWH-Duke Engage SI Uganda program will likely continue to grow.

Nimisha Pant is a freshman currently studying mechanical engineering.